Religious Unmusicality: What Does it Mean? And Does it Matter?

organ-1550156_960_720Ein Gastbeitrag zu Max Webers berühmter Metapher von Paolo Costa //
A guest contribution abaout Max Weber’s famous metaphor by Paolo Costa.

The first recorded self-description as a religiös unmusikalisch or tone-deaf person occurs in a private letter sent by Max Weber to Ferdinand Tönnies in 1909. Weber presents himself therein as the exemplary embodiment of a psychological condition of both estrangement and non-hostility towards religion and spirituality.

It is true that I am absolutely unmusical in matters religious and that I have neither the need nor the ability to erect any religious edifices within me — that is simply impossible for me, and I reject it. But after examining myself carefully I must say that I am neither anti-religious nor irreligious.

In recent times, Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas dusted off and borrowed Weber’s figure of speech with slightly different intentions and an overlapping aim in mind: to signify both their distance and absence of a pre-emptive animosity against the so-called “return of the sacred”. This non-belligerent attitude is reminiscent of S.J. Gould’s similarly quietist idea of the “non-overlapping magisteria”. Sociologically speaking, all these philosophical stances mirror the historical rise of the secular option and, along with it, of the chance of living a fully and authentically areligious life.

The metaphor of the religious tone-deafness has become popular in today’s highly agonistic public sphere because it captures and makes intelligible a remarkable experience, which conveys the sense of a paradox.

What we know about believing…

To begin with, there is a subjective rock-hard certainty. You are certain that you do not understand what is going on in the heart and mind of a believer. You know that you do not resonate with her. You are aware that you are religiously tone-deaf.

This can be a certainty with no history behind it or, alternatively, you may have achieved such a firm belief, as it were, after a conversion of the gaze, just like when one gradually grows out of the community of faith one was raised in.

But then, as it always happens in our plural society, you come across a person whom you respect and with whom you sympathize, and who, however, has still a strong connection with the realm of experience you no more resonate with. In this event, if you are a reasonable being, blaming your estrangement on the person’s flaws becomes harder. As a result, it makes sense to look for a passive element in yourself, an out-of-control disposition that can explain the gap. Here comes the idea of a lack of receptivity. Maybe you are the problem. It all comes down to your insensitivity, deafness concerning experience contents which you have never had access to or now fail to make contact with.

If we understand the idea of a religious unmusicality along these lines, then it is us and them. Religious people have access to a layer of experience that you could reach only by giving up something you treasure. You are not like that. And yet this gap is not regarded by default as a conversation-stopper, as the Last Word, so to speak. You might even be fascinated by those on the other side.

I propose to see this as a case, as it were, of upstream disagreement, i.e., a tacit or non-propositional disagreement that, under certain circumstances, can lead to a downstream disagreement on specific beliefs, judgments, and choices.

…and what we can’t know

Let us look into the matter more closely.

The music example is relevant here. For we can easily imagine people who are unable to be moved, deeply touched, by music and, yet, who, from their standpoint of non-involvement, think that there must be something significant, inherently worthy, maybe even vital there where they cannot get.

Now, what is going on here?

Even people who take music very seriously are willing to concede that the cognitive significance of music, if it occurs, is conveyed by a kind of knowledge by acquaintance, which is not replaceable by propositional knowledge or knowledge by description. There is something ineffable in music, that can be felt, but words cannot express. After all, music is something that has to feel like music.

But this assertion has to be qualified. For the claim to estrangedness can only be partial in the case of music. There is a sense in which not even a severely deaf is completely alienated from music, because the act of listening not only involves the ear, but it engages the entire body.

Let us say, hence, that the feeling of being estranged can be at most partial and what is claimed in describing yourself as unmusical or tone-deaf is the lack of resonance. By this I mean the absence of a transformative, incremental, relation between musical sounds and your particular sensorium. While you can hear music, you may be unable to listen to it: you can be “oblivious to the charms of music” (Rorty). Another way of making the same point is to say that unmusical people do not have full access to what has been effectively described by Roger Scruton as an “acousmatic space”: a “space full of movements and fields of force in which nothing actually moves” because the causality that operates in this space “is or aims to be a causality of reason. In successful works of music there is a reason for each note, though not necessarily a reason that could be put into words”.

Against this backdrop, the absence of resonance in experiential fields such as music, religion or, for what it is worth, philosophy, can be interpreted as a form of deafness to a distinctive variety of non-physical causality. But this does not prevent you from taking a disengaged stance towards the thing you do not resonate with. Observed from a condition of non-involvement, music still looks like a rich phenomenon. You can recognize sound, rhythm, melody, harmony, dissonances, and silences too in music. And these elements are combined in so many different ways that the result can turn out to be unrecognizable also to an ear that, albeit musical, is unacquainted with a specific set of combinatorial rules.

What music?

There are, furthermore, multiple ways to enjoy music. The body, for example, can be involved in different manners. It can be affected almost imperceptibly, as it happens with “the purely instrumental music of the concert hall, designed to be listened to in silence, and presented in an atmosphere of reverential attention” (Scruton), or it can be undertaken in a frenzy fashion, as it happens in tribal rites, in folk dances like Pizzica or rave concerts.

So, where does music begin and where does it exactly end? The problem of demarcation turns up in the case of religion as well as in music. And it is not independent from the staunch sense of estrangement investigated here. For the way we understand religious tone-deafness is contingent on how we typify the peculiarity of religious arguments compared to other arguments.

Strikingly enough, Max Weber, the man who cooked up the idea of religious unmusicality in the first place, was skeptical about any attempt to define the timeless essence of religion. However, if one is not a priori inimical to fuzzy concepts, one can be satisfied with a characterization of religion along the following lines. Religion is an enacted system of symbols that has a significant impact on the believers’ moods and motivations. And these changing emotional states are ordinarily made sense of in light of an idea of a general order of existence.

In this regard, religion appears as a both practical and intellectual way of coping with reality’s thickness that draws on inspirational inner and outer sources and is able to bring about momentous experiences of “self-transcendence”. What matters most here is the reminder of the concurrence of social, affective, and cognitive elements in everything we are prone to mark as “religious”.

Here the parallels between religion and music become especially relevant. Religious unmusicality can be regarded as a form of inability to fine-tune with the pulling power of an experiential field, that is also a sui generis epistemic space. In this resonant space, the participants’ attention is drawn to something that is simultaneously present and absent. It is present as the “aboutness” towards which the redundant intentionality of the agents involved converge. But it is also absent, in so far as it is ineffable.

A double sacrifice

For my argument’s sake, I wish to emphasize this power to capitalize on the listener’s passivity. In order to be fully enjoyed, music demands a form of abandon, of giving oneself up to it. And this, in turn, explains why a structured fruition context analogous to a ritual space is needed in order to insulate the listener from the surrounding noisy world.

From this point of view, being able to listen to music entails a double sacrifice. On the one hand, the listener is asked to give up an absolute control over her emotional life in order to encourage a full display of human sympathy. On the other hand, the expected sacrifice has to be grasped (etymologically) as making a realm of experience sacred, i.e. extra-ordinary. This is precisely what an unmusical person seems unable or unwilling to do.

If the analogy holds, then, religious tone-deafness looks like a principled refusal of complying with the request to isolate and shield some experiential contents from more forward, occasionally even intrusive manners of approaching them.

But is religious belief special in this regard? Or are there plausible grounds for principally accepting a larger degree of passivity than what is usually consented to in a reasonable justification of ordinary beliefs without forsaking the commitment to the space of reasons altogether?

A positive answer to this tricky question can be pursued by means of an abridged phenomenology of what I venture to call the epistemic side of sacredness. In the extensive web of beliefs in which each of us is involved, there are some of them that play the role of self- or world-disclosive beliefs. If you want, they could be called the deposit of our experiences of self-transcendence.

What do I mean by this? The meaning of the sentence is easier than the words that conveys it. Experiences of self-transcendence are all those life events, encounters, occurrences, that disclose new “takes”, new understandings, new perspectives on our mode of being-in-the-world. They are usually condensed in gnomic sentences such as:

The very best thing is not to have been born.

All is well.

To be happy is to feel at home in the world.

What these sentences have in common is their semantic density. They are straightforward, but they are in no sense immediately understandable. They express a point of view on what there is and their angle cannot be taken in unless you come to terms with their way of having the world in view. In this regard, they demand an epistemology of involvement. By this I mean that, in order to be fully grasped, they ask for a conversion of the gaze. With a remarkable choice of words, Iris Murdoch described them as “deep moral configurations of the world, rather than as lines drawn round separable factual areas”. As a result of their gestaltlike quality, they can be seen as the product of a form of creativity that does not depend exclusively on our ability to represent things correctly. They proceed from our way of relating with the surrounding environment, of resonating with it, of living through the significance of what is at stake in our assessments or appraisals.

If this is the case, the analogy with what Roger Scruton calls the “acousmatic space” seems to be in order. Although music can be occasionally approached by taking a disengaged stance, depending on circumstances and personal goals, a stance of pure detachment is incompatible with the conditions of intelligibility of its experiential contents. Hence, an a priori refusal of reckoning with the transformative power underpinning what I called self- or world-disclosive beliefs is bound to prevent us from reasonably dealing with them, doing them justice and, in case, arguing them.

If I am not mistaken, the intellectual effort required in a conversation revolving around this kind of “over-beliefs” – of which core religious beliefs are a genuine instantiation – operates at the level of articulation rather than of justification. For the point of the exchange is less establishing once and for all who is wrong and who is right, ceteris paribus, than bringing the beliefs to the fore, making them explicit, and making sense of them as charitably as possible.

To this end, it seems more sensible to pursue an alliance between reason and emotion, rather than demanding a wholly dispassionate approach. Emotions are, in fact, constitutive of self- and world-disclosive beliefs. So, in order to identify the latter, you have to appreciate the significance they have for their holders, the intimate connection they incorporate with their idea of flourishing or fullness. These are not beliefs which are placed on the margins of the believer’s system of beliefs. They are better regarded as axes of their creative way of responding to experiences of self-transcendence and making sense of them. Making sense of them requires an effort, even a struggle – and not any struggle whatsoever, but a struggle for recognition.

Paolo Costa is Senior Researcher at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Trento and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Platform RaT.


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